What did I think of Risen 3 – Titan Lords, Piranha Bytes’ low fantasy, pirate-themed roleplaying game? I wrote nine diaries about it, primarily focusing on the absurd, and I was variously accused of sneering unreasonably and giving too much attention to something that didn’t warrant it. Both were probably correct, but my riposte to either is that I did it because I was enjoying myself. It’s just that sometimes I was laughing with the game, and sometimes I was laughing at it.
Just to recap, in case you can’t be bothered with the diaries, Risen 3 stars a nameless hero with a piratical background, who winds up getting his soul stolen and embarking on a series of not particularly piratical fantasy adventures to get it back and rid an island continent of assorted great evils. There are monsters to fight, there are quests to complete, and there is a semi-open world structure which permits hitting the main objectives in an order of your choice, as well as signing up with a faction of your choice. There is magic – including voodoo – but for the most part it’s about hitting and/or shooting things.
There’s also a strong tendency towards amorality, both fixed – in that almost everyone is a complete prick to almost everyone else – and optional, in that you are free to rob or even murder many NPCs so long as you don’t mind certain quests potentially being locked off as a result.
Did I like Risen 3? Yes and no. Thanks to a combination of freedom, playfulness and wildly varying production values, it’s a game that can’t help but generate oddball vignettes. Sometimes it means to – for instance, when I stumble across two goons who are utterly convinced that they’re being manipulated by sinister ducks – and sometimes it’s simply wretched, such as in the hateful characterisation of major NPC Patty or poorly thought-out purse placement. (Though for all I know, that was entirely deliberate).
Then there’s the singular Bones, a companion character whose bizarre cadence and scenery-chewing is too sustained and too amusing to possibly be an accident. I genuinely, truly, love Bones.
Sometimes, Risen 3 seems to understand that its best route out of a low-budget ghetto is to be consciously ridiculous. It knows it can’t even begin to compete with a Witcher or a Dragon Age or an Elder Scrolls in terms of production values and scale, and, on and off, it aims to be offbeat enough to make up for that.
Unfortunately, the moments of delectable strangeness, or low-key ambitiousness such as transforming into a simian thief or a short-range parrot, are offset by a tone that’s frequently simply unpleasant. This is a game whose dialogue uses swearing and passive aggression as a crutch, as an unconvincing and unappealing short cut to imbuing characters with personality.
Precious few of Risen 3’s hundreds of NPCs have a definable personality beyond this routine obnoxiousness, and I found myself skipping through a great many conversations not from boredom, but from a sort of miserable irritation. Worst of all was my own character, who would reliably bark out unprovoked and disjointed unpleasantries in his exaggerated Estuary accent, serving only to leave me feeling dissonance between he and I.
I appreciate there may be some authorial intent at play, a deliberate attempt keep things low down and gritty, but when a player can’t even empathise with his own character because he’s got no idea which of the proffered conversations is going to result in his randomly insulting the other party, I would argue that intent has gone too far.
Worse than all of this is a particularly concentrated vein of deep-seated chauvinism that runs through the game’s entirety. The few female characters in Risen 3 either openly use sex for personal and/or financial gain or are helpless victims, with no personality beyond that, with very few exceptions. One of these is a housewife who never leaves the kitchen, and the other is the lead character’s sister, who looks like she’s just stumbled out of a Pirates of the Caribbean spoof porno.
Furthermore, the male characters demonstrate a consistent contempt for the women around them, and sadly this includes the player character too. Many a conversation involved open and crude discussion of how a woman was there purely for the sexual benefit of the men, or to make grand declarations about how all women were using sex to trick men or obtain money. At one point, the player character even exclaims “women” in sneering agreement with an NPC’s sweeping generalisations. Yeah man, women. All of them. All the same. Greedy evil whores, every last one of them, eh? LOL zomg IKR.
I’m bringing this up not to nitpick, but because Risen’s depiction of women is far more unhealthy and damaging than is a game which neglects to include female avatars or sticks ridiculous iron boob tubes on those that it does have. This is not a single scene or single problematic characterisation: it runs through the entire game, and comes up again and again. In Risen 3, there’s an endemic attitude that women are lesser, women are whores, women are to be mocked, women are not to be trusted. It’s a nasty little boy’s club that scorns anyone with a vagina.
There is a case to be made for exploitation games that know they’re doing it, and that try to do it with conscious affectation and style rather than simply lazy stereotyping. There is definitely a case to be made for enjoying problematic media so long as one concedes that it is problematic. That is not the case here: this is simply ignorant, and backwards. Nothing is gained or improved because of how Risen 3 depicts its women. I found it exhausting, creepy and unpleasant to listen to, and at least some of the pauses between diary entries are because of that.
It’s testament to what Risen gets right that I persevered and intermittently enjoyed myself despite a regular burning desire to wipe the thick-headed thing from my hard drive. This is a game which offers little guidance and certainly no mandates in terms of what kind of roleplaying hero I should be. It lets me do what I want, and even if it struggles to make that freedom pay off, that fact it even tries to is what I most needed. While I wove in and out of a central plot – and key events must be triggered in order to progress in certain areas – for the most part I was free.
Free to concentrate on increasing my thievery skills, free to hop between the game’s half-dozen islands at my leisure, free to travel with or without a companion, free to roam, free to do most anything apart from choose how my hateful character spoke to others.
It’s a game more than capable of beauty too, even if so many of its words are ugly. Landscapes are lush, draw distances are long, colour abounds and mountains are there to be climbed. There’s too much incidental combat with angry wildlife to make this a sightseer’s game, but it has its moments.
It has its moments in fights as well, when I accidentally train a pack of three giant chickens into a pack of four fishmen and have to make do. It’s frantic, and until I’d invested a healthy amount of points into my sword skills it was often rather difficult too, but there’s a refreshingly organic quality to combat, and one that means victory feels sweet, not pre-ordained. There’s a bar brawl quality to it that I really enjoyed, a sense of desperation and chaos which feels in keeping with the rough’n’ready world.
That’s the thing about Risen 3 – I feel like a lot of what happens happens by accident, and is just for me. The reality is that every creature has been placed just-so, and that a relatively thin variety of enemies is being repeatedly presented in varying combinations rather than the game offering significant diversity.
Somehow, it hangs together anyway. I want to see what’s out there. I want to find treasure chests hidden in lost caves, or skill trainers who hang around campfires in the middle of nowhere, or mad men who want me to murder ducks for them. Hell, I even like it when my wilderness excursions result me in inadvertently completing half a dozen quests I hadn’t even accepted yet. Risen 3 is frequently messy, but to some to degree that’s a result of it being so organic and freeform, even though a fixed structure ultimately surrounds it. It’s a small game in many ways, but with a lot of discovery woven into it.
In other words, and I’ve felt this for a long time, I’d so love to see what Piranha Bytes could do given a big budget. Their foibles are very much on show here, but so is their tendency to fucking go for it. Even for something as simple and pointless as being able to sit on a chair because a chair is there. I love that stuff.
As much as the awkwardness, the wobbly writing and the ghastly attitudes often pushed me away from Risen, I’d still take its offbeat ambition and clumsy ambition over a slick, impersonal Diablo or a focus grouped Bioware effort. At the same time, sharper, caveman-free writing and a big spend on more accomplished voice-acting would be redempetive – would transform Risen from appealingly odd and into truly impressive. But maybe what’s special about this would be lost if it were able to pursue norms. Perhaps it needs to be as weird and awkward and unpleasant as it is. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much, even when I hate it.
Risen 3 has been out for bloody ages already.